Wednesday, October 12, 2011

OWS Disturbs the EV Comfort Zone

A Voice reporter contacted me to ask me about the neighborhood comments on Penley's Occupy Tompkins Square Park at EVGrieve's blog, and what it means for the EV. I won't bother to rehearse the lamentable loss of historical memory over the illustrious history of TSP protests from the 1850's to the 1990's and their significance. What I find particularly telling is that the comments appeared on Grieve. Who reads and comments on Grieve now, and why? Here's my personal, angry take on them (disclaimer: none of this applies to the many thinking, socially aware newcomers to the EV) --

This new breed of Lower East Sider comes to enjoy a sense of urban authenticity in Manhattan. Of course, it's not authentic at all, but a kind of faux authenticity, pretend authenticity: the EV feels like it's hip, it imagines itself to be hip, it has lots of youth who style themselves as hip, but in reality, they are just children of wealth seeking $700 a month more hipness and urban pretend-authenticity than they would get in Queens. It's that measured thrill (the oxymoron is intended) they seek -- just enough for them to congratulate themselves for not living in a forgettable neighborhood like Kips Bay, but not too much to lose sleep over the noise of a late-night drum circle.

The mere suggestion of being arrested for a principle of justice arouses such unconscious fear that they respond with political condescension and smug personal disdain. Note how they fail to understand the OWS movement itself: they attribute to it whatever they disagree with, so that, conveniently, they can dismiss it, don't have to be bothered with it and don't have to confront its potential. It is, if you forgive another oxymoron, aggressive apathy. Call it proactive apathy, to use one of the redundant and useless epithets of their generation.

They read Grieve because reading some local foodie restaurant blog would show themselves in their mirror as exactly themselves, mere gentrifiers -- but Grieve is cool, Grieve is hip, Grieve is an insider, so they can feel insiders without ever getting inside anything in this place. That's who reads Grieve today. Bob Arihood died just in time. He'd have seen it as every good deed's punishment. Grieve has, no fault of his own, become the entertainment for the gawkers of authenticity. 

Grieve's readers consider themselves East Village old-timers if they've lived here for six years, long since gentrification settled in. They have no conception of the meaning of this once unique place, not a clue. It is beyond their capacity to imagine, let alone understand. They have lived all their lives with property values and social control. They have no sense of the freedom that follows property abandonment and its vacation of all ownership control, often described as anarchy. They are the children of entitlement. The great difference between the trustfund babies of the EV and the overeducated campers in Liberty Plaza is that the latter are unemployed and drowning in student-loan debt, while the former enjoy mixology at Death & Co.

The campers have been successful at keeping momentum and visibility by holding new events each day or so. The occupation of TSP sounds like a useful part of that program. I don't see it as unduly disruptive. If OWS has the potential to shift the balance of politics in this country, issues of local noise, garbage and crowding hardly seem worth mentioning in the broad narrative arc of history. Maybe we have become too accustomed to complaining about bars. But, seriously, barflies are not making history; they're just making noise. I mean, here is an opportunity to change the voice and profile of our polity, and the news media and the local residents are worried about noise? What happened to these poor rich people's values? What kind of sorry excuse are they for humanity? Are they so comfortable and jaded that they can't care about anything but their own comfort? Is this neighborhood truly no more to them than the latest ice cream parlor tasting? Is this what the LES has come to?

OWS has stepped into the muddy stream of American democracy, pronounced it a river of shit, which it is, and have called for a dam: enough. They have pointed to the naked emperor -- the wide disparity in both our politics and economy. They have as yet no program, no solution except the goal of obtaining a more equitable distribution of democratic power. They are not exculpating Obama by targeting Wall Street. They are not supporting any party. Unlike the Tea Party which began as an knee-jerk revolt against the color of the president, finding its libertarian justification after the fact to legitimize its acid racism, OWS started with principles. You can tell the difference by their resistance to any political party, while the Tea Party jumped quickly into Republican habit. Theirs was never anything but partisanship. OWS is, as many have suggested, something new. It's not a demonstration; it's not a third party. It's a social movement focused on the failure of American democracy itself.
I have no expectations, nor any predictions for its success, but I am not so ironic as to view every honest effort as naive, silly, childish or risible. Irony is the privilege of the abstract, the distant, the uninvolved. It suits the comfortable, the secure, those who can afford to be indifferent. If we all regarded our political process with irony only, there'd be no place for democracy at all. The OWS process is all about participatory democracy. It is so pure and purged of irony that its principled participation cannot close on its demands. That's one reason why it hasn't gotten involved with any party or against any party, why it hasn't projected any specific solutions. It is a movement discontented with our democracy. 
The only campaign poster I've seen at Liberty Plaza is for Ron Paul. Now, several of Grieve's commenters seemed to think that OWS should attack gov't rather than Wall Street. Well, that's Paul's message, and it's there at OWS, along with many other messages. You won't see any Obama posters there, that's for sure. So I think the commenters, as most ugly commenters are, uninformed, biased loudmouths. The content of their comments are of little merit but of revelatory sociological curiosity. Look at who they are, or what they are. I take them very seriously, but not what they think, if they think. It looks to me more like avoidance, complacency and self-congratulations than thought. And it's all so close to the sentiment summed up in Let them eat cake.

Le yuppie

Trustfund-baby hispter wannabe


Goggla said...

"...avoidance, complacency and self-congratulations..."

Yes. What frustrates me more than corporate greed is the way so many people just accept it. It's too much effort to speak up and disagree...and why would you when you've had everything given to you and told you deserve it without having earned it?

I was shocked to read comments from people who felt holding a demonstration in Tompkins to be inappropriate. Are you kidding me?! Not only is it appropriate, but it's our RIGHT as Americans.

You've hit the nail on the head here in your post. Thanks for putting this out there. I look forward to Saturday.

rob said...

Thanks, Goggla. Those who can afford to buy their rights never need to fight for them and too often don't care to fight for the rights of others.

Anonymous said...

"Manhattan is the primary locus of global capitalism, the most voracious force for change in history. Best to pick a different place to try to render fixed and solid that which inexorably melts into air."

rob said...

Thanks for the link, anon. Schwartz' criticism covers Jacobs' view only because hers is narrow and his is blanket. It's a familiar criticism. But inevitability is a strong word. The Bowery, for example, languished in near zero property values for maybe about 80 years. The LES, once an exploitative high-rent district up to the 1920's, declined to below zero values by the 1970's -- landlords burned their own buildings to cash in on the insurance, and even the city didn't want the abandoned buildings, giving them away to homesteaders. The city itself scraped bottom in bankruptcy in '75.

Those are extremes, and no one wants to see the Detroitification of New York. And it's unlikely that that would ever happen here, since we have already survived the loss of the manufacturing base, floating our economy with financial services and entertainment/nightlife/tourism.

But there are healthy, robust means to prevent gentrification in New York, and one is immigration. That's why I'm involved with Chinatown planning and worried about its future. Gentrification leads to homogenization. Who needs yet more of the same?

Anonymous said...

Sigh. Sure, yes, some people don't give a shit about the history around them, or economic injustice, or democracy. Some people don't want a protest in their back yard. Some people are a big part of the problem. Yup. However, as a supporter of OWS, I'd like to say that I did not support Penley's protest and I'm delighted it was ignored by OWS. The issue, for me, is that Penley and Co. have been doing what they do for years--taunt the police, run vague disorganized protests, claim to be or to be helping squatters/commies/anarchists/homeless/the oppressed/etc. but to no end. There are perfectly legitimate tactical and ideological reasons for NOT supporting Penley and Co. that have little to do with old skool EV vs. the newly gentrified EV. I encourage Penley and Co. to participate in the OWS protests and if they have ideas take them to the general assembly or one of the OWS working committees. However, I'm not going to spend my time on Penley and Co. If Penley has anything useful to say, well, I haven't heard it at any of the EV protests that he's participated in.

You can say "You aren't radial enough to support Penley." or "You don't appreciate TSP traditions." or call me a NIMBY or whatever. Some of that may be true but I would support, say, OWS marching to TSP, or holding a General Assembly at TSP, or even setting up an encampment at TSP, and all of those things would probably be far more disruptive that the usual Penley protest. I'm okay with Penley as a fellow citizen but I'm not at all interested in him as a political thinker/leader. Ignoring him, for the most part, is the right thing for EV residents interested in economic justice and democracy.

Anonymous said...

I'm surpried at how little Obama support there is down at OWS . I spent 4 hours there yesterday , and he was blamed as much as banksters are .
They should stay away from Tompkins , fake hipsters